Think About the Consequences!

If you haven’t already seen Surly Amy and Harriet Hall come together on common ground, it’s definitely worth looking at. It’s a master class in generosity and humility. Steven Novella, who acted as an intermediary in helping Amy and Hall smooth the path toward understanding, also posted their letters at his blog Neurologica.

Along with the letters, Novella posted his take on the general situation in which both last year’s TAM and the recent blog posts have happened. In response, the usual arguments were trotted out to suggest the harassment really isn’t something the skeptical and secular communities really need to worry about. Novella’s responses to that were good and much appreciated.

Then Justin Vacula showed up, still trying to peddle the idea that the harassment is just the little price that some of us have to pay in order to have an opinion. Novella pointed out that he was both minimizing and mischaracterizing the situation. So Vacula (in a comment that included a couple of quotes for which he both seems to be the source and is demanding citations) tried again.

Here are some tips, anyway, for Rebecca and anyone who faces criticism/hate to reduce the criticism/hate:

Do not directly or indirectly engage with dissenters.
Avoid commenting on websites of your ideological opponents.
Refrain from attacking individuals; stick to criticism of ideas rather than persons.
Consider how people might respond to what you write. Can something be reframed so as to not lead to undesirable criticism?
Avoid sharing content when experiencing heightened emotions (great anger, disgust, stress, etc)
Consider sharing something with friends before it becomes public. A second (or third) set of eyes might suggest helpful edits which would avoid negative feedback.

Sadly, Novella agreed with this at face value.

Justin – you specific recommendations at the end of your last comment are all reasonable.

I’m not sure that I wouldn’t have done the same in his position. It generally sounds reasonable until you realize that half of those amount to “Stop talking” and the rest–given as advice–assume facts not in evidence. For example, one of the strengths of Skepchick is that multiple authors means multiple eyes on a piece before it’s published. Telling someone who already does that to do that is very much like just telling someone who disagrees with you to “Think about what you’re saying.”

However, it’s “Consider how people might respond to what you write. Can something be reframed so as to not lead to undesirable criticism?” that I really want to address in this post. Having dealt with Vacula directly and watched several others deal with him as well, I have to ask some questions.

Young woman looking very skeptical.

“thoughtful Tookta” by w00kie. Some rights reserved.

  1. How was I supposed to expect that Vacula’s response to “We’re done here” and “Leave me alone” in our first Twitter conversation would lead to him continuing to tweet at me for months, until it became common knowledge in his group that unwanted @ mentions could contribute to account suspensions? Is there any way to reframe that such that the freeze peach brigade doesn’t consider it a violation of their right to make me hear them at any time and place?
  2. How was I supposed to expect that documenting the harassment of the slime pit would lead Vacula to claim that I can’t be stalked because I’m a public figure? Is there a reframing in existence that can keep people from giving unfounded and incorrect legal advice that suits their friends’ ends?
  3. How was Ophelia supposed to expect that publishing the letters she received about TAM that led to the final straw in her decision not to attend would lead Vacula to read only the innocuous bits of the letter on his podcast talking about how unreasonable she was to stay home? Is there a way to reframe that letter that could have forced him to attend to the salient bits?
  4. How was Amy to know that filing a DMCA takedown notice for art she owned would lead Vacula to pen a guest post for a SPLC-identified misogynist website? Is there a way to reframe exercising your rights that won’t automatically force people to align with a hate site?
  5. How was Jen to know that telling people that her boyfriend was concerned about her would lead to Vacula claiming he tells her what to do? Is there a way to reframe that information that provides protection from people who care more about laughing with their friends than your mental health?
  6. How was Melody to know that choosing when and where to deal with “critics” on Twitter would lead to Vacula making a YouTube video calling her a “professional victim”? Is there a way to reframe limiting your exposure to constant negativity that can’t have the nonsense label du jour slapped on it?
  7. How were the Skepchicks to know that offering a workshop at CSICon would lead to Vacula saying they produce “everyday nonsense” on the conference hashtag? Is there a way to reframe teaching skepticism that keeps people from using hashtags for their own purposes, whatever they may be?
  8. How was EEB to know that leaving a comment on Ophelia’s blog would lead to Vacula doing a “dramatic reading” of that comment on YouTube then posting it at the slime pit? Is there a way to reframe being tired and upset that would keep him from giggling through her distress?
  9. How were all of the women who have talked about their experiences being harassed or objectified at movement events supposed to know that Vacula would choose to sweep aside their numbers as a general failure to provide any evidence that harassment is a problem in skepticism or secularism? Is there some perfect way to reframe these experiences that would keep Vacula from sticking his fingers in his ears and singing, “La, la, la, la, la”?

Given that Novella noted that Vacula was doing just that, even after all the people who have commented in various places about this, I have to conclude the answer is, “No.” Admittedly, I’d already considered Vacula’s “advice” to be so much self-serving bullshit, but it’s worth checking the math every now and again.

Ironically, Vacula tweeted something today that’s relevant to this.

The identity of the person matters not when we are considering the strength of an argument. Horrible people can be right, after all #skeptic
@justinvacula
Justin Vacula

It’s true as far as it goes, but it leaves out something very important. Sometimes the identity of the person making an argument tells us what their argument really says. It tells us what background they’re leaving out of their argument to make it sound as though they’re being reasonable. It tells us what they intend to use agreement with their argument to justify next. In short, it tells us how much charity is reasonable in interpreting the words of the argument.

If I were in Novella’s place, I might well have agreed that Vacula had a point with his “tips”. Novella sees an odd slice of the harassment through the SGU, but he doesn’t see everything that’s going on. When it comes to harassment, only those of us who are receiving it see that, and only if we compare notes.

Remember that next time you see someone who’s been harassed disagreeing with you about whether that “reasonable” argument is really so reasonable.

Comments

  1. says

    I simply loved Vacula’s first paragraph, because it shows his full sexist hipocrisy (and his inability to write)
    “women using sexist language to describe other women”
    “and women using language unfairly calling men ‘rape apologists,’ ‘misogynists,’ ‘women haters,’ ‘anti-woman leader,’ etc.”
    Yep, women, all of them. I guess that includes Jason, and PZ and “Ian Brown” and the likes.
    Too bad if you can’t hide your sexism even in one sentence when you’re trying to appear reasonable…

  2. says

    To add an example from Steve’s own blog that many people can probably recognise. From an april 2009 post.

    “This I know for sure: The method of science is to consider the strength and weakness of all scientific theories. Teaching only the strengths of a theory, and not the weaknesses, is indoctrination, not science.”

    That all sounds very reasonable doesn’t it. Now if you know the quoted person’s name, name or history of the group they represent, or the history of that language and arguement you might be more orprobably less charitable to it.

  3. says

    Context matters. If someone asks you “what would you do if something bad happened to your spouse?” it matters whether the question is coming from a concerned family member, and insurance agent, or Don Corleone.

    When the “you should watch what you post” comes from someone who is harassing and encouraging harassing, it takes on the tone of “you’d better watch your mouth”: it isn’t coming from a place of concern, it is a threat that the harassment will continue until you shut up. Worse, it pretends to reasonableness as an excuse for future harassment, because Vacula and his partners in slime can point to this and say that they don’t have any sympathy for anyone who didn’t follow their “reasonable advice.”

  4. hoary puccoon says

    That “avoid sharing content when experiencing heightened emotions” is pretty rich, coming from a slyme pit member.

    Over the past months I’ve seen dozens of threads derailed because every time a feminist made an unanswerable point (E.G, “but feminists do support a man’s right to fair treatment in family courts.”) the subject got magically changed to “why are you so ANGRY???” I think Stephanie wrote a blog post on that very point.

    It doesn’t do a whole lot of good to “avoid sharing content when experiencing heightened emotions” if the whole discussion is going to be about your allegedly “heightened emotions” anyhow.

  5. thetalkingstove says

    Refrain from attacking individuals; stick to criticism of ideas rather than persons.

    Could he be any more oblivious? The slymers are dedicated to attacking individuals for bring old, overweight or female.

    When the likes of Hall, Harris, Shermer and Radford have been criticised it has been because they said or did something that merited criticism. I’ve never seen their looks, age, gender, sexuality or similar being subject to abuse on FTB.

  6. Your Name's not Bruce? says

    Looking at the tips themselves I’m amazed at how many would be helpful if the ‘pitters followed them themselves. It’s actually BETTER advice for them than for their victims. Imagine how much less distress and hurt there would have been if they followed this advice:

    “Do not directly or indirectly engage with dissenters.” Yep; just avoid contact with people you “disagree” with.

    “Avoid commenting on websites of your ideological opponents”. Yep; don’t shit on other people’s space

    “Refrain from attacking individuals; stick to criticism of ideas rather than persons.” Yep; wait, did he really just suggest that to the VICTIMS of all this!!!? Lack of self awareness is strong in this one.

    “Consider how people might respond to what you write. Can something be reframed so as to not lead to undesirable criticism?” Yep; if you don’t want to hurt or antagonize people, don’t go out of your way to do it.Bit late for that one.

    “Avoid sharing content when experiencing heightened emotions (great anger, disgust, stress, etc)” Yep; of course it’s so much worse to RESPOND to an attack with anger, disgust, stress than to have been attacked in the first place. How dare you bleed when I poke you with a pointed stick!

    “Consider sharing something with friends before it becomes public. A second (or third) set of eyes might suggest helpful edits which would avoid negative feedback.” This one maybe not so much. Sharing with friends seems to be the whole raisin dates with much of this “brave hero” crap.

    So the advice, on the whole is sound, it was just directed to the wrong side of the rift.

    (Meta: “preview” suggests this is going to be less easy to read than I had hoped. My easy-on-the-eye spaces between points seem to be getting eaten up. My apologies.)

  7. jenniferphillips says

    Yes, context matters. JV’s plans to attend WIS2 (as a ‘conscientious objector’, one can only assume) color all of his would-be peacemaking statements, in my opinion.

  8. jenniferphillips says

    Sadly, Novella agreed with this at face value.:
    “Justin – you specific recommendations at the end of your last comment are all reasonable.”

    But today, in response to commenter erikthebassist’s list of recommendations for JV, Novella says:

    it is easy to make a list of grievances you want the other side to own up to and correct.
    Try this – make a similar list of the things that what you consider to be your side can and should acknowledge and improve.

    I am unable to log into Neurologica with WordPress, otherwise I’d ask him directly about this inconsistency. Grrrrr

  9. says

    It’s interesting that Vacula’s “advice” is the opposite of Steve Novella’s (and others’) urging to read charitably. Vacula’s advice is to expect the absolute worst at all times.

  10. says

    Justin friended my cyberstalker on facebook who promptly began spinning tales of MY harassment of him. I PM’d Justin in the silly optimistic hope that he would remove the offending defamatory post as he claims to demand evidence of such harassment. HAH!

    Apparently, this only applies to the WOMEN! He demanded MY evidence. When I responded that I preferred to keep it private, he scoffed. The defamatory post remained on his wall sans evidence from my stalker though.

    He then chose to follow my stalker on twitter and when I finally provided the requested proof (police report) and told him I just wanted it private. He told me I should stop talking about it!!! I wasn’t the one talking about it. He was and with the person harassing me. What ensued was a barrage of further harassment. Thank you, Justin.
    https://twitter.com/WilKuhlmann

  11. Anthony K says

    So is Vacula *directly*, or *indirectly*, engaging with his dissenters when he goes to WIS? Not that it really matters, since his rules proscribe against both.

    Words mean nothing to them.

  12. Parse says

    And this is why I fall firmly on the Pharyngula side of the civility pledge debate. What Vacula is saying here is a ‘civil’ way of an abusive partner saying, “I love you, babe, but why do you make me hurt you? I don’t want to do it, you know that sets me off.” It’s not the fault of the mildew mob that they’re so full of bile, it’s the fault of everybody else for setting them off.

    Has he given any indication when he will give equally helpful advice to deliverers of criticism/hate?

  13. says

    It would be interesting to see how the Advice Squad reacts to people who chastise atheists for being “too militant”. Why, if only they THOUGHT before criticizing religion, they wouldn’t engender such hatred and pushback from fundies!

  14. FelixBC says

    Parse, that’s exactly what comes to mind for me as well. From that thread: “the responsibility of one’s actions laid with the actor, not with the the satirist who depicts them or with the reporter who comments on them.” The only solution is silence, which is what they want in the first place.

    What I don’t understand on that Novella thread, and elsewhere, is the declaration from active pitters* that they don’t see any misogyny, sexism, or racism in the ongoing conversations. Yet the pit is filled with it, daily. They’re swimming in it. They must know this, so they’re actively lying when they claim that it isn’t. (Or their definition is set so impossibly high that nothing, absolutely nothing, meets it. Funny who gets to define the terms; certainly not the subjects of that abuse.)

    On threads where they claim this they either get away unchallenged and are treated as making “reasonable” arguments, or massively derail with demands for “screencaps” but “no cherrypicking!” They’ve got lying and denial down to an art form, and “charitable” “reasonable” hosts like Novella let them get away with it, all the time. And of course, if the host challenges them, they go bonkers and get banned, and the *host* is at fault for being too sensitive and banning freezepeach.

    *Decius is an active pitter:

    They make images of her crying. Interesting, I thought the responsibility of one’s actions laid with the actor, not with the the satirist who depicts them or with the reporter who comments on them. Alas, never let objectivity and personal responsibility impinge on the narrative of victimhood feminism.

    I’m not aware of any photoshopped porn and certainly none which was produced by the many skeptical satirists who took an interest at this drama. I follow them on Twitter and most appear to gather and publish at the slymepit. I wonder why these ugly pieces always manage to elude my attention.
    Rape and death threats are also nowhere to be found, with both sides strongly united in condemnation and disdain. But, together with sexism and misogyny, they keep on being pinned – by one side – on the community at large and mischaracterized as a widespread internal problem.

    I find these manipulations despicable and unless the slander and libel cease, I don’t see a good reason for “peace talks”.

  15. says

    Once again, we see the problem with letting the opposition try to set the terms of debate. Rules for thee but not for me.

    I do love that the guy who was so shocked that people would perceive his posting of Amy’s address as a threat, who was so upset that people might think he’s a misogynist MRA because he posted at AVfM, would caution others to consider how their writing was likely to be perceived.

    A person’s identity is not relevant to the soundness of their argument, but it is relevant to knowing the argument’s intent and the person’s credibility. There’s this tendency (especially among the pitters, it seems) to fetishize this Vulcan-style idea of emotionless logic, without understanding either what logic is or what’s necessary for effective argumentation. Basic Aristotelian rhetoric, folks, real Philosophy 101 stuff: pathos, ethos, and logos. Why you should care, why you should believe me, and why I’m right.

    Weird that there’s so many skeptics who omit or disdain those first two.

  16. D. C. Sessions says

    The identity of the person matters not when we are considering the strength of an argument.

    Which argument? English is such a lovely language for expressing multiple meanings — and that’s not even getting into in-group variants such as dog whistles.

  17. says

    Parse, that’s exactly what comes to mind for me as well. From that thread: “the responsibility of one’s actions laid with the actor, not with the the satirist who depicts them or with the reporter who comments on them.” The only solution is silence, which is what they want in the first place.

    Last time I looked “depicting” and “commenting” were acts, too.
    That’s their whole twisted Freeze Peach (now with 100% free Hedgehog but no ice cream) worldview: When somebody does something, says something, is something, they are fair game and nothing is off-limits for all time. But don’t you dare criticize them, then you’Re meaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaan.

  18. says

    Crommunist:

    It would be interesting to see how the Advice Squad reacts to people who chastise atheists for being “too militant”. Why, if only they THOUGHT before criticizing religion, they wouldn’t engender such hatred and pushback from fundies!

    By the same token, I’m pretty sure I’ve never seen an atheist or skeptic accused of making up harassment, or rape and death threats, to drum up page hits or get attention… not when the accused is a Christian or especially a Muslim. Dawkins can read his hate mail and the skeptics just nod and say “yep, those theists sure are a nasty bunch!” and don’t ask for evidence or police reports. When a Christian or Muslim woman leaves the faith and goes around talking about the misogyny and abuse she suffered, I’ve never heard a skeptic ask if there’s video or medical records to prove the claim. Somehow, it is TWO standards: complete acceptance of almost any claim of bad behavior from theists, vs complete rejection of almost any claim of bad behavior from skeptics/atheists… at least against women or non-whites. The victims get no benefit of the doubt.

  19. A. Noyd says

    FelixBC (#17)

    Or their definition is set so impossibly high that nothing, absolutely nothing, meets it. Funny who gets to define the terms; certainly not the subjects of that abuse.

    Yeah, it’s this. See, the targets of abuse are too emotional to rationally set terms. There’s no way to be rationally upset over abuse—emotions and rational thought are mutually annhiliating, like matter and anti-matter. And, of course, if the targets aren’t emotionally worked up yet, the abusers will work their asses off to make that happen.

  20. UnknownEric is just a spudboy, looking for a quantum tomato. says

    I’d love to be able to rebut Vacula’s bizarre writings, but every time I read anything he’s written, all that comes out on my end is an unrelenting stream of curse words.

  21. Wowbagger, Designated Snarker says

    Improbable Joe wrote:

    Somehow, it is TWO standards: complete acceptance of almost any claim of bad behavior from theists, vs complete rejection of almost any claim of bad behavior from skeptics/atheists… at least against women or non-whites. The victims get no benefit of the doubt.

    As I’ve said before, if these so-called ‘skeptics’ applied the ‘skepticism’ they demand from us consistently, none of them would ever leave their house out of fear of fire, flood or plague of frogs.

  22. says

    Wowbagger, they don’t even apply them consistently within paragraphs. I’m sure there’s a friendly neighborhood Nerd around here somewhere to shout “evidence or GTFO”… They’ll say “feminists are just pulling things out of their ass, I know from experience” and not recognize that they are privileging their experience over the experience of the majority of women when it comes to the sexism issue. Somehow “I was harassed” is a statement that needs a mountain of evidence, while “feminism is an unnecessary dogmatic ideology that is destroying our community” is to be accepted without even an attempt at justification.

  23. athyco says

    How was Amy to know that filing a DMCA takedown notice for art she owned would lead Vacula to pen a guest post for a SPLC-identified misogynist website? Is there a way to reframe exercising your rights that won’t automatically force people to align with a hate site?

    And how was Amy to know that Vacula would then ignore–until he was badgered into it just yesterday–that Amy had released photos to CC, that she had chosen on her own to withdraw from the fray after “reframing” her comments about jewelry, thereby evidencing that his advice was worthless before he wrote it. He ignored (but had to know about) all that when he posted a photo of her work–without notification or attribution–on his page fundraising for his WiS attendance, she responded January 19 via Twitter in exactly the way he’d said she should have.

    He ignored everything (except the photo interaction which came later) in order to grab onto Thunderf00t’s coattails, making in December a “Saint Surly Amy and double standards” rehash video after Tf00t made his on Michael Nugent’s blog post. He allows others to ignore his own words that the article was for the misogynist website, not a reprint. He ignored everything including the photo interaction in his February 12 A-News interview with Lee Moore on “Insight on the Infighting.” In it, he’s asked about the peace process: he once again tells his tale of DMCA woe and innocence-blighting accusations about potential doxxing (to which he responded with actual doxxing), but he can’t bring himself to acknowledge that Amy even exists–and that he’s had a civil contact with her–in the time frame after what he terms the “lowest of the low” with her DMCA. (Or that he applied for a SurlyGrant the next day.)

    All you have to do with Justin Vacula is serve up his own words back to him, and he can’t choke them down.

    Skepticism is not defensiveness, but rather a questioning attitude someone has when something seems awry.

    Disagreements, additionally, can be taken off blogs and had in private. People can be mistaken, after all, and even make uniformed comments once in a while. It would also help to treat people more charitably – interpreting their words or arguments in a more favorable light.

    Unfortunately, I don’t see this ceasefire working when some of the persons involved in this — whether they admit it or not — unwilling to have a discussion. I’d like to have a discussion about these issues and move forward to at least give it a chance.

    Don’t those quotes from his blog and an interview on “peace” sound pretty? And how does he live by them?

    It’s nice that Dr. Hall and Amy could come to a sort of understanding through private messaging. Perhaps this can be a future standard, but what about the attacks on Dr.Hall and the misrepresentation by people like Amanda Marcotte — to just provide one example — who suggest Dr.Hall is trying to ‘preserve a position as a token?’ This comment is most offensive and egregious…and the accompanying article is trumpeted by many friends of Amy. I won’t say Amy is guilty by association, though, but it hardly seems to be the case that there can be ‘ceasefires’ or mutual respect and comments like these linger and are trumpeted by those under the banner of feminism. Perhaps there is some hope…

    Oh, and those 5 rules in the later comment? He copy/pasted them from his earlier blog post “Negative criticism and the internet” in which he puts Amanda Marcotte up as the sole example for a single tweet about Storify. Yeah, don’t interact directly or indirectly; don’t attack individuals.

    Can we make “Something seems awry” buttons for WiS2?

  24. doubtthat says

    “Vacula” is such a perfect name. So evocative, is it a stage name?

    I imagine him lurking around in the forrest, pouncing on fairy rings hoping to surprise delicious Smurfs with his buddy Gargamel. Gargamel and Vacula, the golden years.

    Not substantive, but that guy makes me laugh.

  25. StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return! says

    Minor issue but there’s a dirty great ad blocking out much of this paragraph for me :

    Given that Novella noted that Vacula was doing just that, even after all the people who have commented in various places about this, I have to conclude the answer is, “No.” Admittedly, I’d already considered Vacula’s “advice” to be so much self-serving bullshit, but it’s worth checking the math every now and again.

    Ironically, Vacula tweeted something today that’s relevant to this.

    Ad blocks everything from “considered ..” to ” .. its worth ..” & obscuring up to the “..nt to this.” in the last line.

    Anyone else have this issue?

  26. penn says

    This analogy may be a little over the top, but isn’t asking why only some feminist skeptics get harassed online like asking why only a small minority of African Americans in the Jim Crow south were lynched or had fire hoses and dogs let loose on them? If most African Americans weren’t lynched or physically brutalized, then the ones that were must have antagonized their abusers, right?

  27. Pteryxx says

    More like asking why only some people get raped. Never mind that a much smaller and more statistically relevant minority are doing the raping. Obviously, the vast majority of people do NOT choose targets to relentlessly harass, slander and stalk. Eliding the harassers is just another attempt to normalise their unacceptable behavior.

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